OPINION | HUMAN RIGHTS | CHRISTIAN-JEWISH ISSUES | CEMETERIES & MASS GRAVES | OLD VILNA JEWISH CEMETERY AT PIRAMÓNT | OPPOSITION TO ‘CONVENTION CENTER IN THE CEMETERY’ PROJECT | INTERNATIONAL PETITION
by Josifas Parasonis
Iconic roof of the dereleict Soviet sports palace in the heart of the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery. Graphic by D. Umbrasas / Lrt.lt. In the original publication.
Vilnius’s historical and literary sources confirm that there are a number of burial sites in the city, mostly near Christian and Orthodox churches. Larger cemeteries, including Rasos, Antakalnis (soldiers), Bernardines, Orthodox (Liepkalnis), Jewish cemeteries (Piramont / Snipiskes and Zarétshe / Olandų), Evangelicals (Kalinauskas) and others. The legal regulation of Vilnius city cemeteries started only in the second half of the eighteenth century, when cemeteries near Christian and Orthodox churches were full to capacity (burials ceased in 1865) and separate parishes began burials outside the city.
The oldest cemetery in the city, also called “the old one” is Jewish (located at Piramont, now in Šnipiškės), in which burial began as far back as fifteenth century, and near them (also in Piramont), called St. Raphael. According to old Vilna Jewish records, the oldest stone at the Piramont cemetery dated from 1487. The Jewish cemetery at Piramont was closed by Tsarist Russia’s authorities in 1831 and was partially destroyed by installing military fortifications. In the second half of nineteenth century the Rasos, Bernardines and St. Peter and Paul cemeteries expanded. During the Soviet era, places of worship, shrines and cemeteries were severely damaged. In the St. Jacob and Philip church, the Opera and Ballet Theater put their decorations into storage. There was a cinema in the Evangelical Reformed Church, where tombstones of the Jewish cemetery were used as steps for the entrance stairs. St. Casimir Church housed a museum of atheism. A sports hall was set up for the restoration workers at the Evangelical Lutheran Church and the cemetery was destroyed.
The complex of the Great Vilna Synagogue and the Strashun Library have been razed to the ground, and a typical silicate brick kindergarten building is still located on the site. Completely destroyed were St. Raphael and the (above-ground, visible parts of) the two Jewish cemeteries (Piramont and Olandų), Evangelical and two German soldiers’ cemeteries. High-rise administrative buildings were built on the St. Raphael burial grounds, a Vilnius Concert and Sports Palace was erected in the center of the Piramont Jewish cemetery, a ritual services center was built in the Olandų Jewish cemetery, and a Palace of Marriages was built in place of the Evangelicals’ cemetery. The extent of the damage done by Soviet Lithuania to the city’s history and the country’s culture is difficult to fathom.
Vilnius is known in the world as a multicultural city, hence its diverse cemeteries since medieval times. Regardless of nationality, the wish is there for the deceased to rest in peace but unfortunately, we are not always able to fulfill this wish. Judaism even forbids autopsy and cremation, as well as reburial. The common reason for these prohibitions is respect for the dead and the sanctity of the grave. The foundational Code of law in Judaism (Shulchan Arukh) consists of four sections and to this day rabbis take an exam from it in order to be certified. There was a well-known case where a rabbi asked a student to list all five parts of the Code and the student immediately replied that there were only four. To this the rabbi said that there is a fifth part — common sense. The cemetery is an integral part of the city’s history, culture and civic spirit. Without adherence to traditions or common sense, dramatic cultural losses are possible: it is precisely for these reasons that, for example, the location of the remains of Vytautas, the Grand Duke of Lithuania, remains unknown.
“it is worrying that in our independent Lithuania, within the European Union, the desire to build on the old Jewish cemetery has returned in full force. Not once — but repeatedly.”
On reflection, it is worrying that in our independent Lithuania, within the European Union, the desire to build something in the territory of the old Piramont Jewish cemetery (or to reconstruct the Sports Palace on the territory of the cemetery) has returned in full force. Not once – but repeatedly.
Each time the question of the boundaries of the cemetery naturally arises. In the 1990s, many human remains were found while building access to the newly erected nearby Mindaugas Bridge. Early in our own century, in 2005 when designing the Mindaugas Apartments, it was decided to determine through researched documentation the boundaries of Šnipiškės cemetery. I participated in this work at the time, as the Deputy Chairman of the Lithuanian Jewish Community.
We examined various sources and saw that the cemetery went right up to the Neris river! Now this can be seen in the easily accessible book Vilnius City Plan, published in 2016 by the National Museum of Lithuania. At the time, the municipal company “Vilniaus Planas” prepared a document on the changes of the boundaries of the Vilnius Jewish cemetery, using the 1808 and 1938 city planning data by inserting the data into the currently used geodetic and cartographic coordinate system. This document was approved by Vilnius County and Vilnius Municipality.
2006 – 2008
In 2006, the Department of Cultural Heritage recognized the Soviet-built Sports Palace building with the surrounding area as itself immutable “cultural heritage.” In 2007, the Lithuanian Institute of History carried out a study which examined the history of Šnipiškės cemetery from the beginning to its official state closure to new burials in 1831.
The main focus was on the expansion of the territory of these cemeteries, Jewish relations with other religious communities as well as with the city government. It should be noted that the Sports Palace was built in perhaps the oldest part of the cemetery. On April 8, 2008 the “immovable cultural heritage commission” at the Cultural Heritage Department produced an Act (KPD-RM-672) concerning the valuable (archaeological, historical and commemorative) features of singular cultural heritage object (the site of an old cemetery). Section 13 of an Act on the valuable properties of the object states that it is: “Elements of the land and its surface – topographic relief (part of the territory was destroyed in the first half of the nineteenth century by building defensive fortifications; part of the territory was excavated, divided in the middle of the twentieth century and later during the construction of the sports complex and the Concert and Sports Palace and the planning of their surroundings; part of the territory is occupied by the street and paved parking lots); remains and their remnants).”
It continues listing important facts of society, culture and state history (personalities, events) : “[…] buried Vilnius city inhabitants… Elijah ben Solomon Zalman (Vilna Gaon, 1720–1797), a Jewish scholar and one of the most famous interpreters of the Talmud, was buried there. In 1948 the Vilna Gaon and the remains of his relatives were moved to the New Jewish Cemetery (Olandų Street), and in 1963 the remains were transferred to the Sudervė Jewish cemetery. The territory of the cemetery in Šnipiškės gradually changed with the acquisition of the surrounding plots by the Jews, at the same time taking over the payment of taxes for the former land users. The cemetery was merged into one plot and the largest territory (4.3 hect.) reached its peak at the junction of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Some of the actual burials, which were not destroyed by the construction of the fortress, the Concert and Sports Palace and various underground tracks, have survived.”
On October 22, 2008 the Government of the Republic of Lithuania, by means of a resolution, declared the project of adaptation of the Vilnius Concert and Sports Palace to a congress center as “important for the state,” but in May of the current year, 2020, this resolution was revoked. I will not speculate whether the withdrawal is the result of common sense or other reasons, but I welcome this message.
On the register of the Department of Cultural Heritage, 13 October 2015, an Act (No. KPD-RM-45/1) on the Vilnius Concert and Sports Hall appeared. Unlike the above-mentioned 2008 Act on the Valuable Properties of the Area, the new act established the valuable properties of the property (the name of the property: Vilnius Concert and Sports Hall) — the building itself. In section 9.3. the area contains: “(valuables included in the area, their codes; content of valuable properties features, objects; indicated by a semicolon, or in the appendix in which they are given a number)” remained unlisted. The Jewish cemetery is not even mentioned, the stated area remained the same (as in 2006 and 2008) at 52,000 square meters. The building itself occupies only about 5,000 square meters.
“It is obvious that the Sports Palace is built in the center of the cemetery”
Incidentally, in the Act’s section 12.1., the “value-defined area,” the valuables of the boundary coordinates coincide with the values of the previous acts, but apparently the values of the x and y coordinates are erroneously interchanged. In 1924, the head of the Vilnius magistrate’s technical department approved the design of the cemetery fence in Šnipiškės. This document shows that in the area of the Sports Palace, the minimum distance from the eastern part of the fence to Rinktinės Street is about 130 meters, and the largest, going south, is about 210 meters. The western wall of the Sports Palace building is about 50 and about 90 meters away from Rinktinės Street, respectively. The dimensions of the plan of the building of the Sports Palace are 73.55 x 67.70 meters. It is obvious that the Sports Palace is built in the center of the cemetery.
In the 1930s
In 1935, Israel Klausner published a monograph about the old Vilnius Jewish cemetery in Šnipiškės. At that time, the graves and tombstones of famous people still stood honorably next to thousands of Jewish men, women and children who lived and died in Vilnius in the period of 1592–1831. Among them – Menahem Mannes Chajes (died in 1636), one of the first chief rabbis of Vilnius; Moshe Rivkes (died in 1671); Be’er Ha-Golah, the author of the classic commentary on the Shulchan Aruch; Shlomo Zalman (died in 1788), the younger brother of R. Chaim of Valózhin and the most beloved disciple of the Vilna Gaon; R. Elijah ben Solomon Zalman himself (died in 1797), the Vilna Gaon; Abraham Danzig (died 1820); the Chaye Adam, author of a practical compendium of Jewish law.
Klausner’s book contains a cartographic scheme of the cemetery, in which 220 graves are marked and correspond to his compiled list. The city government of the time cherished plans to build a stadium on the site of the cemetery. This was categorically opposed by the spiritual leader of Vilna Jews, Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzensky. The Polish government relented and declared the cemetery a valuable museum object.
The new Olandų (Užupis, Zarétshe) Jewish cemetery was opened in 1830 on a leased area of 4.5 hectares. At that time, the Chevra Kadisha, the burial fraternity of the Vilnius Jewish community, took care of the expansion of the cemetery and until 1939 bought out an area of 9,637 square meters from the Orthodox Christian monastery. The cemetery was managed according to the project of architect A. Viner.
Over 70,000 people were buried in the Užupis Jewish cemetery. Among them are famous nineteenth and twentieth century figures of Jewish culture, science and society, poets, book publishers, bankers, clergy. Among them — Vilna rabbi Chaim-Ozer Grodzensky (1863-1940), H. Katzenellenbogen (1796-1868), Menachem Rom (1831-1903), M. Strashun (1817-1885), I. Bunimovich (died 1929), whose former bank building now hosts the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture, and Tsemakh Shabad (1864-1935), a famous Vilnius doctor, whose memorial sculpture is located on Mėsinių Street. In 1959 the cemetery was closed, and in 1965 the demolition of the tombstones began, very few people were reburied and the tombstones were used as a construction material.
After the restoration of independence, numerous tombstones were recovered from stairs, foundations and retaining walls. The architect Jaunutis Makariūnas prepared a cemetery memorial project, which began to be implemented in 2004. The construction of the memorial was supported by the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad (USCPAHA). With the support of the city municipality, out of the ten sculptures planned for the memorial project, we (I had to coordinate the execution of these works) managed to build only the first tombstone sculpture.
Of the above-mentioned destroyed Vilnius city cemeteries, only the commemorative project of Olandų cemetery has started to be implemented. There is so far no news about St. Raphael and Evangelical cemeteries’ commemoration.
“Turto Bankas goes so far as to claim the Soviet sports palace was built outside the cemetery”
Concerning the old Piramont cemetery in Šnipiškės, disputes continue. In 2015 I stated publicly that plans for functional development of the Soviet-era Vilnius Concert and Sports Hall should be further deliberated. The idea of a congress center has become less attractive to our government. But the developer of the project. “Turto Bankas” (the state-owned “property bank”) has a different opinion, going as far as to unreasonably claim that the Sports Palace was built outside the cemetery.
Yes, it is true that there are few Jews left in Lithuania. Therefore, most of the restored former Jewish synagogues and other buildings have their functional purpose changed. That is the reality. But there are many descendants of the Litvaks in the world and those who sympathize with them. More than 52,000 signatures have been collected, asking that the Congress Center project be moved to another location. This dispute is not just our internal local affair.
The four parts of the Code of Jewish Law may remain mandatory only for Orthodox Jews, but Part 5 applies to all of us. A human being is born of free will and chooses whether to carry out orders, orders which may be appropriate and may be destructive. Most Nazi war criminals tried to justify their compliance with the orders during the Nuremberg Trials. Common sense dictates that man is always free to make his or her own decision. Maybe the Government of the Republic of Lithuania, which refused to consider the reconstruction of Vilnius Concert and Sports Hall as a project of national importance, will take the next step as well? The commemoration of one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in Europe in North Jerusalem must be worthy of the spiritual legacy of the Vilna Gaon. Everything can be physically destroyed. But the history remains.
Professor Josifas Parasonis, a long time professor of construction sciences at Vilnius Gediminas Technical University is a founding member of today’s Vilnius Jewish Community. This comment first appeared in Lithuanian on the mainstream media news portal Lrt.lt. This translation appears here with the author’s approval.